Peace process needs better run rate - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

The semi-finals of the World Cup at Mohali turned into a good innings for the fledgling peace process even if it left Pakistani fans disappointed by the lacklustre performance of their cricket team.

The first India-Pakistan match played in the subcontinent since the Mumbai incident afforded an opportunity for the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and India to meet and talk about a broad range of issues. This marked a new thaw in relations coinciding as it did with the resumption of formal talks agreed at Thimphu in February.

The agreement between the foreign secretaries in Bhutan ended the prolonged impasse over reviving a comprehensive dialogue between the two countries. Disrupted by India’s suspension of the peace process after the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist incident, the ‘composite dialogue’ covering eight baskets of issues (plus one added at Thimphu) has been revived in all but name.

This agreement on the terms of re-engagement provided the essential backdrop to the carefully scripted encounter at Mohali. The initiative for the ‘cricket summit’ came from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and there was much diplomatic communication between the foreign ministries to get both optics and the substance right for the ‘cricket summit’.

This worked and the mini-summit saw both sides matching the other in making positive statements. There were mutual declarations of working together to secure permanent peace. For Prime Minister Singh’s beleaguered government, rocked by a series of corruption scandals, the peace initiative was a welcome distraction from domestic turmoil and a paralysed parliament. As one observer put it: Singh followed a time-honoured tradition and “turned to foreign policy because he had simply run out of ideas on the domestic front”.

But there seemed more to the Indian Prime Minister’s pursuit of cricket diplomacy than this. At Thimphu, the Indian Foreign Minister MK Krishna had told Pakistani officials that his Prime Minister wanted to make peace with Pakistan his legacy, reiterating a message also conveyed earlier of his desire to achieve a lasting rapprochement as his career draws to a close.

To reciprocate the Indian desire to restart the process Islamabad made diplomatic concessions to provide room for Delhi to come out of the corner it had painted itself into by setting a pre-condition for formal talks – action on the Mumbai case. By sequencing the planned series of meetings in the revived dialogue in such a way as to start with the interior secretaries’ meeting on counterterrorism, Islamabad allowed Delhi a face saving way to back away from its conditions-based approach.

A consideration behind this show of flexibility by Islamabad was to bilateralise the conversation on counterterrorism and limit Delhi’s ability to use this as a means to malign Pakistan internationally and put it under pressure as it had done with great relish in the past two years.

The outcome of the first encounter of the renewed bilateral discussions acknowledged the Indian priority: agreement that inquiry commissions from each country will visit the other in connection with the Mumbai incident. The joint statement issued on 29 March after the meeting between the interior secretaries said that “the modalities and composition (for this) will be worked out through diplomatic channels”. India too met Pakistan’s demand to provide information about the probe into the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombing in which 48 Pakistanis were killed by Hindu extremists.

These mutual undertakings marked a concrete step forward in a difficult area. The agreement to set up a hotline is more symbolic, as it basically means that the two secretaries of home and interior will now have each other’s mobile phone numbers. But it does reflect a mutual readiness to increase cooperation.

The start of the composite dialogue amid the smiles and handshakes of the Mohali encounter has helped to improve the tone and tenor of the relationship. But there is much ground to cover to improve the content of relations. Better atmospherics may be necessary but they are not sufficient to normalise and reset ties.

If the past is any guide, the peace dialogue will have to improve its run rate if it is to avoid disappointment or a reversion to a wearingly familiar ‘one-step forward, two backward’ pattern of diplomatic engagement. This means that the two sides should consider whether there are issues that can provide the ‘quick wins’ the peace process needs to acquire real momentum, build wider public support and marginalise hardliners on both sides.

Two ‘quick wins’ within the realm of possibility are on Siachen and Sir Creek, among the many disputes that have bedevilled relations. Previous progress on these issues could be made the basis for agreements. After all understandings were reached on them at different junctures in the past. But in both cases Delhi was unable to surmount opposition from its military and unwilling to translate progress into concrete agreements. If past understandings could be revived and accords forged this would send an important signal to the people of the region and to the international community that Pakistan and India are capable of solving their problems and take ‘ownership’ of their affairs – in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry’s latest phrase of choice.

An opportunity to improve the quality of engagement will also come when the trade talks convene later this month between the commerce secretaries. Both sides have an interest in enhancing commercial ties and increasing bilateral trade – which reached an annual peak of $250 million pre-Mumbai – in areas where it is in their mutual advantage.

But Delhi has to be urged ahead of these talks to end its opposition to the market access deal offered to Pakistan by the European Union in the wake of the July 2010 floods. The time-bound trade offer, giving Pakistan preferential access to European markets, is of modest significance but has met stiff Indian resistance. Delhi led the opposition from a small group of countries in the WTO that has to grant a waiver to the tariff concession to enable the deal to go through.

In last month’s meeting of the WTO’s Council for Trade in Goods, India again opposed the deal. A waiver will now be considered in another meeting in April but the Council is now obliged, under the rules, to report to the General Council of the WTO, set to meet on May 3-4. A positive signal from Delhi before this meeting can resolve this matter, and serve to demonstrate that India is prepared to accommodate issues of concern to Pakistan in the effort to build better ties.

Progress in the peace process will likely be incremental but where confidence can be built and mutual accommodation reached opportunities should be seized. The calendar of meetings in the next three months on different issues on the agreed agenda will test the ability and resolve on both sides to move the process forward. Although Kashmir remains the litmus test of sustainable normalisation there are other issues whose resolution can help create the climate to address the core dispute.

Between now and June/July, when the foreign secretaries would have met and the foreign ministers will conclude the present round of meetings by reviewing the progress, there will be plenty of opportunity to determine whether the Mohali spirit will produce a long and rewarding innings or turn out to be another dropped catch.

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